Medication abortions will be the first type of abortions offered through the Department of Veterans Affairs, said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the under secretary of health for the VA.
Elnahal said that the VA was concerned about restrictions on women’s health care and abortions following the overturning of Roe v. Wade during the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing Thursday. The new interim final rule was announced Friday and provides female veterans with access to abortions when a patient’s life is at stake or the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.
“We could simply not contend with that environment of safety for veterans,” Elnahal said. “If these veterans are under our care, and we know that we can save their lives, we have to do it.”
He said federal employees who perform abortions at VA sites will be protected, even if they are working in states that ban the procedures.
Alabama’s current law outlaws all abortions, excluding when the patient’s health is severely threatened. There are currently no exceptions for rape or incest.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R- Montana) said at the hearing that he was “glad that the state of Alabama has already filed a lawsuit.”
A representative for the state’s Attorney General Steve Marshall declined to comment or confirm whether that statement was correct. No new case appeared to have been filed as of Thursday afternoon.
The rule also allows VA health care professionals to treat several pregnancy-related conditions that were previously excluded from the medical package.
“VA, prior to this rule, could not treat severe preeclampsia early in pregnancy. It could not treat heavy bleeding leading to a hemorrhagic shock,” said chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.). “It could not treat placental abruption causing hemorrhage. It could not treat water breaks early in pregnancy causing infection. It could not treat ectopic pregnancy.”
Elnahal clarified that abortion counseling will be available to all veterans, while abortions themselves will either be limited to the opinion of a clinician or the outcome of self-reporting regarding rape or incest. He clarified that self-reporting rape or incest was sufficient proof to receive an abortion.
Elnahal said the VA will work alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the their own pharmacy benefits management program to comply with rules pertaining to medication abortions. Currently, abortion pills are approved by the FDA.
Dr. Amanda Johnson, the VA’s director of women’s reproductive health, said the VA estimated that roughly 1,000 abortions will be now given out each year, with the majority being medication abortions.
The VA reported 10-12 women annually have previously received emergency care when a pregnancy threatens their health each year, but several lawmakers pointed out that the VA excluded abortions and abortion counseling from their benefits package without exception prior to this rule change.
“I understand that there are only a dozen or so of these cases a year and my colleague, Chairwoman Brownley, believes that there are more,” said Takano. “I’m with her on this, because counseling about abortion services that could save womens’ lives were not even permitted to be talked about, but there were brave VA physicians who put the life of our women veterans ahead of even their own potential livelihood.”
A recent email from the Birmingham VA’s executive director Dr. Oladipo A. Kukoyi did not confirm that Alabama would begin extending abortion protection for veterans in the state, but stated that the department would be putting together a “multidisciplinary team” to begin looking at solutions surrounding women’s health care.
None of the other VA locations in the state have released similar information to date.
Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Minority Veterans of America and Paralyzed Veterans of America all issued statements of support for the VA’s efforts to prioritize women’s health care.
The rule will become effective upon publication in the Federal Register, along with a period of open public comment.